In 2005, after spending some 25 years in and around the law, I set about writing down what I had learned and valued most. What emerged as of central importance in my career and for the firm I created was relationships; with colleagues, clients and indeed anyone I dealt with in the course of practice and business. Professional, working, relationships are different to personal relationships, and perhaps a little simpler in some respects, and they deserve our deliberate attention.
My book was published by the American Bar Association in 2007. In 2015 I completed a second edition which has just been published, again by the ABA, in North America. That revised text has also been published outside North America under the title ‘Fragile – Mastering the relationships that can make or break a career, and a firm’. As I began updating my text, I realised just how much had changed in terms of technology (the first iPhone had not yet been launched in 2005) and in terms of the regulation of legal services (ABS was an abbreviation for ‘anti-lock braking system’).
Technology has had a significant impact on all our lives, relentlessly accelerating the flow of information and (often banal) communication. In the midst of all the data and apps are we, with all our human traits and ambitions, trying our best to make sense of it all in the context of our personal and working lives. As an individual, professional and businessman (each roles of sorts that involve different modalities) I can do more, with less, than ever before. In all those roles, however, I am also conscious of the struggle to keep pace with the expectations of others to whom I am now expected to respond immediately.
Popular fascination with AI and robotics, exemplified by the unprecedented success of the Channel 4 series ‘Humans’, has led to dire warnings from some quarters that Lawyers’ days are numbered that are, I believe, equally fictional. Nonetheless, and though the dystopian future portrayed in ‘Humans’ may yet come about, AI has a much smaller part to play in legal services in at least the next 5-10 years than the doomsayers predict.
Naturally, as new tools emerge that reduce or bypass the risk of human error we should use them. Those who used to performed tasks that can be done by machine will learn new skills and find other work, as has been happening since the Industrial Revolution. My sense is that we need to focus on enhancing our service capabilities in areas that do not readily lend themselves to programmable decision-making.
So long as humans manage their personal lives and run businesses, own financial resources and direct decision-making in organisations, they will look to other humans to help them navigate their way through conflict, change and opportunity. Lawyers can and should provide ‘counsel’ in such a way that takes account not only of the facts and applicable law but also of the emotive situations in which clients, and others involved, find themselves.
Service is not just something you do; it is also, and perhaps most importantly in terms of perceived performance and the likelihood of repeat business, an experience. Service experience is also much more than providing fancy meeting rooms and serving good coffee. A client has a right to expect a lawyer to get the law right; what makes the difference is how well-served the client feels throughout the engagement, regardless of the outcome. Understanding and managing expectations is, I believe, the key to trust; and trust is key to success in retaining and building client relationships.
Another aspect of relationship that is of vital importance is that which we have with ourselves. We do well not to underestimate the pressures we place on ourselves, and are placed on us, to perform as professionals: to be ready at all times with the right answer; to deliver considered and properly articulated responses, usually in writing, to exacting deadlines; to be ‘always on’. To have a sustainable and successful career without losing touch with yourself along the way it is more essential than ever to become an expert in self-management.
The focus of my book is on learning about effectiveness in relationships on behalf of your business, for yourself and for the organization. This is the new field of advantage and one that offers longer-lasting success in business and quality in life. I believe that the capacities and life skills I am addressing are what are needed to make the practice of law sustainable and profitable. Given the rapid development of AI and its ability to handle work that would once have been done by secretaries, paralegals, and, before long, lawyers, surely it makes sense to focus on what sets us apart from computer intelligence.
First published by Legal Futures on 6 February 2017